12 October 2014

England: Strolling in the footsteps of ancient man on Dartmoor

An 8-mile walk today, back to the glorious rolling green hills of Dartmoor, but this time to an ancient part of the moor, Ugborough, where we walked in the footsteps of early man.

We started our adventure in Ivybridge, a small market town on the southern edge of Dartmoor. You can take in the riverside walks along the pretty River Erme and stand in the footsteps of JMW Turner, where he painted the old Ivy Bridge around 1814. There’s a paper mill dating from 1862, where paper is still manufactured today, an aqueduct and a tall railway viaduct, and various interesting old buildings but we didn’t spend any time exploring the town – the moors awaited!

We parked above Ivybridge, thus avoiding the steep climb up the streets to the start of the walk proper, a section of the 117-mile-long Two Moors Way that crosses Dartmoor and Exmoor. For those wanting to follow our path (though I’d definitely recommend a good map!), we left the car near the railway bridge in Harford Road, followed the road over the bridge for perhaps half a mile, then turned right at Stowford Farm onto a public bridle path, an old drovers’ road used by shepherds and their sheep since medieval times.

Passing under the leafy trees of the old road brought us over a stile, out onto the moorland and off we went. The moors are glorious – the rolling terrain is perfect for striding out; there are few people; the wide open spaces mean you can see for miles and you almost feel like you can reach up and touch the sky; and it’s relatively safe, except perhaps in misty weather, when I imagine you could easily lose your way.

Three tracks lead away from the stile – we took the left, past Addiscombe, the ruined cottage of a 19th century tin miner. We circled an old quarry, and followed stone walls and footpaths, some distinct, some more like sheep paths, none signposted, so it was a good thing we had two brochures with small maps and descriptions of the key features.

We skirted Butterbrook reservoir, discretely hidden from view by a dense triangular-shaped stand of trees, and here began our encounter with ancient man, as we wandered through the remains of the Harford Moor settlement, a group of Bronze Age hut circles dating from around 2000BC. They are of the double-walled type – perhaps a testament to the cold moorland weather – and it was fascinating to note that all the entrances faced south east.

By this time we were peckish so decided to eat our sandwiches where those ancient folk had lived, sharing the shade of the conifers surrounding the reservoir with a flock of sheep, until Indie the dog scared them and tried to chase them away – she was on her lead most of the day for precisely this reason. When they realised Indie was restrained, the sheep soon wandered back.

Refreshed, we strolled onwards and upwards, to a two-kilometre-long row of boundary stone markers, the Butterdon Stone Row, dating from c.1700BC when the moor was divided up like the spokes of a wheel into reaves, a land division system separating areas of arable, pasture and open common land for use by the moorland communities. The precise nature and organisation of the system has led archaeologists to speculate that the community was ruled by a single chieftain or king.

Following the stone row to its terminus at the top of Piles Hill, we arrived at a pair of taller standing stones. The largest, a menhir made of pink granite, is known as the ‘Longstone’ and would originally have been 4.5 metres long – an impressive monument.

We then headed slightly across country to connect with the old Redlake Tramway, also known as The Puffing Billy Track. Though the rails have since been removed, the tramway was used between 1910 and 1932 to transport clay and workers from the nearby pits at Redlake to Bittaford township, a distance of 8.3 miles. It now makes a convenient and easy-to-follow walking track.

A little way along the tramway, we made another slight detour, to Spurrell’s Cross. Only the top part of the stone cross is original  it marked the intersection of two of the Dartmoor pathways for drovers, shepherds and monks (walking from Buckfast Abbey to Plympton Priory). Amazingly, there are 132 such crosses on Dartmoor.

Back to the tramway for a short while but then we detoured again, to a nearby tor called Hangershell Rock. I looked but there were no letterboxes to be found. From there we continued along a grass path towards Weatherdon Hill and Butterdon Hill – names that made me think I was walking with hobbits in The Lord of the Rings – past a barrow and three Neolithic stone-filled cairns, common burial places in this ritual landscape. Here ponies were grazing – lots of grey mares, with very cute brown foals – and the 270-degree views of coast and countryside were simply stunning.

From the hill, it was all downhill to the end of the drovers’ road where we had started our walk, many hours earlier. We were hot and sweaty and a bit sunburnt, but what an incredible day we had spent, strolling through ancient human history.

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